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UofU Researchers Tinker With AIDS-Virus Machinery

University of Utah
Virologists Saveed Saffarian and Mourad Bendjennat are discovering new tools in monkey-wrenching the machinery of the AIDS virus. They both in the University of Utah's department of physics and astronomy.

University of Utah researchers say they’ve discovered a new way to hinder the AIDS virus, and their findingsopens door for new treatments that have fewer side effects.

Saveez Saffarian is a physicist who studies viruses. His lab has found a new way to inhibit the HIV virus using the enzyme, protease.

“What we do in the lab,” he says, “is we use every technique possible to answer the fundamental question, which is how do viruses assemble and how do they replicate?”

Basically, the researchers use protease to throw a wrench into the virus-making machinery at a critical time.  So, when new virus particles launch out on their own, they lack essential parts needed to spread the infection. In effect, protease at the right time guts the machine, according to Saffarian.

“Now that you understand the internal working of the engine within the virus we can hopefully design small drug that will go and cripple the virus where it hurts the most,” he says.

The World Health Organization says around 34 million people worldwide have died from AIDS and about 39 million are living with the virus.

So there’s great potential in using these findings to develop effective treatments that don’t have the ugly side effects of current drugs. Saffarian says the work shows the importance of what scientists call “basic research.”

“I think it’s important,” he says, “to have a broad view of our existence in the universe and understand that basic science -- that joy and the resources that unleash by studying basic science -- are tremendous.”

Saffarian says his lab still wants to know even more about how protease works, so it’s developed a new, fluorescent tracer to watch the enzyme in action.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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